Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Imported Inflation ?

The NY Times had a very good article on inflationary pressure from Asia this morning.

The article was titled Asian Inflation Begins to Sting US Shoppers. It did a very good job of giving information about how inflationary pressures were driving prices higher in Asia and correctly
pointed out that it was showing up in US import prices.

Of course we know that from the data on import prices shown in this chart.

But it looks to me like they should have taken the reporting one more step. Because if you look at retail prices what you see is no sign that the higher import prices are being passed through to
consumers. Rather, it looks like so far that retail stores are absorbing the increase in retail prices. Consequently, the rise in import prices appears to be showing up in weaker profits rather then higher inflation.


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Employment report

Even with the drop in employment the new data really does not add much new information to what we knew a month ago.

Interestingly hours worked rose this month. But the first quarter average is 107.4 as compared to 107.7 last quarter. This gives you about a 1.1% quarterly drop–seasonally adjusted annual rate — for the first quarter, or what I said it should be last month. Depending on productivity this implies that first quarter real GDP growth will between -1.0% and 0.0%.

One of the little noticed developments is that nominal income growth is slowing sharply — from
both the drop in hours worked and the slowing of wage growth. Nominal income growth is a very good good leading indicator of inflation and implies that the worries about inflation are overblown. However, the slowing of inflation will trail the slowing of real growth and employment.

As far as I am concerned this data leave us in the never-never land of stagnation and close to a recession but not really in a recession — a widespread and extended fall in output, consumption and income.

Maybe the most critical thing to watch is that an inventory problem appears to be emerging in technology.

PS. edited to correct charts.

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Peltzman Effect

If you look at the data on traffic deaths it is obvious that we are doing something right in the US.
As far back as the data goes traffic deaths have been falling at a -3.2% annual rate.

But if your source of information was economics you would be hard pressed to know this. It has been long shown that driving/riding in a small car was dangerous and led to more deaths. But now we have a new study at
where Michael Anderson found that driving a large SUV led to the same results — more deaths.

It is as if economists found that living was bad for your health.

The approach that I’ve long had troubles with is the Peltzman Effect that concludes that seat belts cause more deaths. Peltzman agrees that wearing a belt and having air bags sharply reduces the changes of death if you are in an accident. He does question the government estimate that these reduce your chance of death by 50%. Rather Peltzman argues that wearing a seatbelt makes you feel safer and so drive more dangerously and this causes more accidents
that offsets the gains from wearing seatbelts. They conclude that one should ignore the direct evidence that seatbelt use and traffic deaths have a -0.9 correlation.

Rather they model traffic deaths as a function of real income, demographics, crime, race, congestion, and other similar developments and develop models where seat belt use has a positive rather then a negative sign.

Of course if you look at the -3.2% trend and regress it against almost any real economic variable it would show up as a powerful variable that is likely to swamp other variables. But I’m not going to get into that now.

However, there are studies that use the same approach and find a much weaker impact and even find no evidence for the Peltzman Effect. On is a study by Alma Cohen and Liran Einav,
Cohen and Einav even suggest an alternative thesis that the act of putting on a seat belt makes a driver think about how dangerous it is on the road and leads to them driving more carefully–
just the opposite of the Peltzman Effect.

I’m not going to go in to the econometric arguments behind these two opposing thesis. Rather I’m going to take a different approach.

The Peltzman Effect contents that sealtbelts cause more accidents. But when I look at the accident data I find that the data shows falling accident rates. The first data series is a very old series on the number of accidents from the National Safety Council — I found it in the Statistical Abstract. It shows that accidents have fallen since sealtbelts were first started to be widely used in the early 1960 and really fell sharply after laws were passed at the state level in the 1980s making sealtbelt use mandatory. That is when seatbelt use also jumped sharply.

The second set of data is a new series from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
that shows traffic crashes since 1989. It can be found at

The people doing the Pelzman type studies think that the accident data is unreliable and do not use it in their studies. Maybe, but if it is biases, it probably has the same biases year after year. For example both data sources could easily under-report minor fender binders that are never reported to the police.

But I have now found two independent sources of data that clearly show that since 1964 when sealtbelts were first required to be installed in new cars or since the early 1980s when state laws requiring sealtbelt use became widespread that the traffic accident rate has been falling. This data or evidence directly contradicts the Peltzman Efeect thesis that depends on rising accident rates.

So, for all the people who believe in the Peltman Effect and are teaching their students that seatbelts cause more deaths then they save I have two questions. One, why should I ignore this evidence that traffic accidents have been falling? Two, where is your evidence of more accidents.

If Peltzman is right, it should not be hard to find evidence of a sharp rise in accidents that the thesis implies, right?

So where is it?

P.S. I failed to point out that the accident data is based on data collected by the insurance industry while the crash data is based on police reports to the Transportation Department.
So they really are independent data.

PPS.. Several people have raised he issue of demographics. this Chart shows that in the mid-1960s when seatbelts were required to be installed in cars their should have been a big jump in deaths due to young drivers. But it barely happened — the jump in the early 1960s precedes seatbelt installation and should have continued into the mid-1960s to the late 1960s. this data implies that seat belts actually prevented higher deaths in the 1960s due to baby boomers starting to drive — again jus the opposite of the Peltzman Effect.

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Stock Market Long Term Valuation

This mornings Wall Street Journal article on the stock markets lost decade gives me an excuse to publish one of my favorite charts– the really long term history of the stock market PE back to 1871.
If you listen to Wall Street strategist they frequently talk about the long term average of the stock market PE being 14.5 as if their were some long term tendency for the market to trade near its long term average. But this chart shows that there is no central tendency for the market to trade around its average. The only tendency is for the market to swing from a PE of under 10 to a PE of over 20. If you do a frequency diagram you find that it is fairly flat at most values between 10 and 20. Until the late 1990s bubble the decision rule to sell when the market PE rose over 20 had a perfect history.

Today’s WSJ article gave the impression that the lost decade should be setting the stage for a period of superior returns as the market returns to the mean. But this chart implies that the market still has a lot of downside as the market PE has only fallen to about its long term average
and still has a tendency to fall to below 10.

But that is what makes a market, you pays your money and takes your pick.

P.S. I have added a chart comparing the market and cash since the PE went over 20 in mid-1997.

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The Shape of the Future

An article by Peter Bernstein is circulating that is such a good analysis of the economic environment that I though it was worth posting on Angry Bear.

The Shape Of The Future

By Peter L. Bernstein

Three months ago, we wrote, “[T]he economic malaise will not be brief, even though its depth is uncertain. The process is going to be like water torture – drip by drip by drip over an extended period of time until all these excesses are squeezed out of the system and new and happier horizons can open up.” This metaphor should now form the basis for all decisions, strategies, and analysis. Recessions matter, but the important features of the problems faced by the American economy are not in the short run. The crucial issue is the nature of the new longer-run environment that we are convinced is now a reality. This environment is still in its infancy, but its principal features are already identifiable.

Too few people are thinking along these terms. The short run always tends to dominate mass thinking in any case, but in an odd way the short run is irrelevant to the current situation. The short run is a creature of the immediate past. The longer run will be a profound break from the past. Indeed, the longer run in this instance is going to evolve as it is going to evolve whether we have a perceptible recession in 2008 or whether we squeeze by with a minimum of negative numbers.

Why are we so emphatic about this viewpoint? As Goldilocks shreds, we have to start thinking about what kind of long-term environment is going to replace it. Shifts to new environments are always attenuated. They are also rare across time, which means most of us have limited experience with this phenomenon. New environments often tend to sneak up on us and do not announce themselves with a fanfare. Most of us are unaware of what has happened until enough time passes to provide good perspective.

Imagine, for example, what would have happened if investors had been willing to think through the powerful positive implications of the disinflationary forces that set in during the early 1980s after Paul Volcker had turned the tide of inflation. Instead, backward-focused investors in fear of renewed outbreaks of inflation ignored the way these new trends would lead to a radical improvement in economic stability and opportunity. The record of long-term interest rates in those years is eloquent testimony to the bias toward the past: although yields on ten-year Treasuries broke briefly below 8% in the wake of the oil price break in 1986, they were back up over 8% in 1987 and averaged over 8% for the next two years. Meanwhile, inflation averaged only 4.3%. Clearly, nobody was willing even to think about what the victory over inflation could produce. Yet it would lead to Goldilocks – a remarkable change in the nature of the whole world – would miraculously emerge from the disinflationary environment.

The discussion that follows begins with a few generalities about when and why old environments fade away and begin to yield to new environments. We analyzed this matter some time ago, but recent events provide a better perspective to our line of argument. We go on to explore how much of the old environment has disappeared, which then leads us to some speculation about how the new régime is likely to develop.

The dynamic process: Familiar facts in a new setting

Economic environments do not have a specified life cycle, like the business cycle. As I have argued elsewhere, economic régimes tend to persist as long as people are still trying to figure out what is actually going on. This effort strengthens the underlying characteristics of the environment and extends its life expectancy. Change, therefore, is unlikely until people finally arrive at the belief they understand what it is all about. Such a process has no definable rhythm. The arrival of understanding could come sooner or later, depending on the circumstances. Furthermore, this process applies to all environments, both prosperous and depressed, to the 1920s as well as to the 1930s, to the years from 1949 to 1969 as well as to the devastating decade that followed.

The 1920s were doomed at the moment when the New Era became a common phrase and Irving Fisher explained that prosperity would last forever. The Great Depression continued until unremitting deflation and waves of bank failures convinced a new administration that the tie to gold at $20.67 an ounce was stifling the economy. In addition, a total reversal of tax-raising fiscal policy and restrictive monetary policy was both essential and urgent. The postwar prosperity of 1949-1969 lasted for over twenty years because it was grounded in doubt as everybody kept waiting for an inflation that failed to show up. Inflation remained low, to general surprise, even though output growth was high. Once people got the idea that high output would not automatically cause inflation, the sense grew that now nothing could go wrong – and so we entered another régime marked by the aggressiveness of monetary policy and war finance in the 1970s. The resulting inflation would rage for ten years before people recognized that a profound transformation of the conduct and targets of monetary policy was essential. The outcome, as mentioned above, was the transition decade of declining inflation in the 1980s, leading in turn to Goldilocks after about 1989.

The Goldilocks environment was so benign it appeared to be a long sequence of happy surprises. Goldilocks was aptly named: low volatility in capital markets and in the real economy, low inflation, central banks in firm control, a healthy appetite for risk-taking in the business world that led to revolutionary technological change, the transformation of the “emerging” economies into “developing” economies, and the resulting boom in globalization.

After the bursting of the bubble in 2000, the business sector of the real economy resisted the fever for devil-may-care risk-taking that ultimately infused the financial markets. As a result, Goldilocks had remarkable longevity. Its death-knell would wait until the financial markets finally got the message that high risks were not really high risks in a low-risk economy. Then the fundamental stability and growth momentum of the global economic system created a bulging appetite for risk-taking that led investors around the world to gorge on anything that looked risky. A point came when any trigger would justify ever-greater risk-taking. The actual trigger did not have to be housing, but (with hindsight) we can see housing was a logical candidate. No one seemed to doubt that home prices could ever stop rising. Debt had no ceilings. Just to make everything appear even better, housing requires financing, which was like handing a delicious and multi-layered chocolate cake to the world of finance and financial engineering. Professional investors learned how to clothe high risks in a low-risk format for sale to the Great Unwashed, and to a goodly number of the Washed as well.

In the aftermath of the fervor for risk-taking, Wall Street and the mortgage banks have created many deep-seated problems for themselves. As an unhappy side effect, the business sector, a relatively innocent observer, is going to have to absorb much of the pain of curtailed consumer budgets and fewer exports to foreign nations affected by the turmoil in the U. S.

The aftermath: An introduction

Human nature develops odd biases. In terms of the economy, memories of past environments are more heavily weighted by the disasters than by the positive achievements of the period. These disasters linger long in collective memories, influencing public policy and investment practice for extended periods of time.

Fear of the double-digit unemployment rates of the Great Depression dominated economic policy from the end of the depression in 1933 to the late 1970s. As late as 1978, with inflation raging around 8%, Congress enacted the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, providing for “the right of all Americans able, willing, and seeking work to full opportunity for useful paid employment at full rates of compensation.” Paul Volcker’s great achievement (and courage) were in his conviction he would never defeat inflation as long as he had to tread softly in limiting possible increases in unemployment. That constraint had to change. Volcker saw no alternative if he was to win the battle in which he had been put in command. As he carried out his campaign, the unemployment rate soared from under 5% in 1979 to nearly 11% in 1982, but inflation dropped from a peak of over 14% to less than 6% over the same period.

Today’s central bankers may make interesting observations about influencing inflation expectations, but everyone knows they must ultimately have the courage to see unemployment increase if their policies to contain inflation are to carry credibility and actually influence expectations. The Fed is in an uncomfortable position at this very moment, because the tradeoff has taken on an unusual complexity, with the job market softening while lingering symptoms of inflation are still visible.

As we now move on into the post-Goldilocks environment, which unhappy memories are going to weigh heaviest? Worries about inflation are not about to vanish, but new elements are going to join in. Clearly, everything that led up to the credit crisis and the problems of home ownership will remain a central focus of attention for a long time.

In addition, as we emphasized in our issue of August 15 of last year (“Memory Banks and Economic Policy”), the increased income inequality generated by Goldilocks has become a widespread popular concern, already making vibrations among members of Congress and candidates for higher office. As Bill Gross himself put it in strong words last August, “So when is enough, enough? Now is the time, long overdue in fact, to admit that for the rich, for the mega-rich of this country, that enough is never enough, and it is therefore incumbent upon government to rectify today’s imbalances.” The rhetoric of the election campaign is full of such talk. This concern will influence tax policy and spending policy for a long time to come.

The aftermath: The particulars

The repercussions in the financial system are our main concern here. Most of the current flood of analyses of the state of the credit markets concentrate on the problems of the present. This kind of information is little help. We need to develop a sense of how this situation is likely to evolve over time. To accomplish that goal, our primary task is to discover where the roots of the new régime are being planted.

We now set out our own views along these lines. We begin with a few generalities. These generalities will lay the basis for the particulars that follow.

Credit is always and everywhere a matter of trust. Where there is trust, anything goes, as the recent proliferation of so many structured financial instruments vividly demonstrates. When trust vanishes, the revival of the buoyant credit creation of the past becomes extraordinarily difficult. But without credit creation, economic growth and risk-taking are stifled.

Liquidity is also a matter of trust to some degree. But liquidity has another feature that few people notice. Liquidity is a function of laziness. By this I mean that liquidity is an inverse function of the amount of research required to understand the character of a financial instrument. A dollar bill requires no research. A bank draft requires less research than my personal check. Commercial paper issued by JP Morgan requires less research than paper issued by a bank in the boondocks. Buying shares of GE requires less research than buying shares of a start-up high-tech company. A bond without an MBIA (once-upon-a-time anyway) guarantee or a high S&P/Moody’s rating requires less research than a bond without a guarantee or lacking a set of letters beginning with “A” from the rating agencies. The less research we are required to perform, the more liquid the instrument – the more rapidly that instrument can change hands and the lower the risk premium in its expected returns.

This emphasis on trust and liquidity in a well-functioning credit market provides useful insights into what is happening. Trust has vanished in many areas where it was taken for granted just a few months back. And when the ratings of S&P and its competitors lost credibility, paper that had traded on sight lost the liquidity it once enjoyed because now it involved far more research than in the past. These words are just an elaborate way of explaining why credit spreads were so narrow just nine months ago and so wide in today’s markets.

This abrupt shift in viewpoints has caused snarls in many areas of the credit markets. Over the longer-run, the most serious of these blockages is the disruption in the process of securitization. Securitization works only in an atmosphere of trust and where the paper involves a minimum of research. Without securitization, and without the lively derivatives markets that developed around the securitization process, the entire credit system loses an immense source of capacity, hindering deserving borrowers in search of financing and, as a result, the pace of economic growth.

Until the system can restore trust and the related willingness to buy instruments on the basis of limited research (or even no research), the credit markets are going function below optimal levels. But restoring trust and liquidity is no simple matter. Securitization broke the old personal relationship between lender and borrower, greatly expanding the market for credit in the process. The old-fashioned way – when lender and borrower were essentially on a face-to-face relationship – was slower, more cumbersome, and, most important, far more limited in terms of capacity.

In my days as a commercial banker, back in the late 1940s, the president of my bank said to me, “Remember this. I much prefer the customer to be angry at you because you denied him credit than for you to be angry at him because he failed to repay when due.” That attitude sounds quaint today, but it was very much in the spirit of a time where jokes about bankers’ glass eyes were legion. As the market for glass eyes revives – and it is reviving as we speak -new credit creation will inevitably slow down. As Woody Brock recently emphasized, “the combination of diminished bank capital and tighter lending standards could prove fatal to credit creation.”

Now, it would be naïve to project this set of conditions into the indefinite future. Trust will regenerate over time, and the burdens of research will lighten. The pace of change in that direction, however, will be slow, a matter of years rather than months. An entire structure has crumbled and has to be rebuilt, brick-by-brick. Nor will that process necessarily be smooth. The impact of unforeseen but inevitable credit problems will loom large, detouring and delaying the pace and patterns of recovery on each occasion.

There could be bright spots as well. Our whole argument rests on the proposition that the demand for credit is going to exceed the supply, which is blocked by lack of trust and an increased burden of research. But a case where supply fails to respond to an excess of demand is rare in our system. People in finance have extraordinary energy for innovation in new products, new concepts, new paths to ultimate objectives. For example, hedge funds and sovereign wealth funds are already functioning as sources of credit, although a bump along the way might turn them off as well.

These widespread and complex problems originated from an unanticipated sequence of shocks involving banking institutions believed to be impervious to losses in the billions and major impairments of equity capital. As we emphasized above, new régimes are colored by the unhappy memories of the preceding régime, and those memories linger on for extended periods of time. The plight of Citicorp and Merrill Lynch reaching for massive help from foreign government investment funds was an event nobody could have foreseen – but few will forget. How the mighty had fallen!

The critical ingredient in the state of distress

The sequence of events that caused the economy to lose its forward momentum over the course of 2007 was unique. This fact is central to our entire argument here. The cause was not too much inventory, not overexpansion in industrial capacity, not a sustained burst of inflation requiring a determined move to tight money and higher rates at the Fed.

The root of today’s problems in the financial markets and in the economy as a whole is the household sector. The point needs no elaboration, but its significance cannot be minimized. As we have argued on more than one occasion, the shrinkage in the personal savings rate is not the result of consumer profligacy, as other commentators persist in describing it. Rather, the savings rate has been suppressed by a slowdown in the growth of household incomes. The shortfall between income and outlay has been met by borrowing, and in particular by borrowing against the family real estate. Now the opportunity to borrow has shrunk dramatically, an outcome that will profoundly change the household’s spending power and spending patterns. But the impact is not just on the household. A slowdown in the growth of consumer spending has ominous implications for the entire global economy – and, along the way, the U. S. federal deficit, soon to be overburdened by spiraling benefit obligations. This predicament is not a short-run matter, unless home prices abruptly reverse themselves and head back into the stratosphere – which is hardly likely.

The bottom line

The central message of our analysis is not that the origin of today’s difficulties is uniquely in the household sector or that the residue of these difficulties has scrambled the whole credit structure in the financial markets. Everybody knows about these troubles.

On the other hand, too few observes have noted how the consequences of these developments are going to require an extended period of time before the blockages they impose have been eliminated. But that is not all they have missed. This extended period of difficulty is going to bring about a new economic régime, different in many aspects from the experience of most people alive today. Along the way, we will have to pass through a transition period that harks back to an unfamiliar past in both the financial system and in the household sector.

But this, too, shall pass. Yes, glassy-eyed bankers, prudent consumers, and a reformulated globalization can keep a lid on economic activity around the world for quite a while. What develops from that transition, however, should resemble what took place over the course of the 1980s. Without anyone realizing it, the errors of the past, drip by drip by drip, were buried and a new and better system took their place.

(format edited slightly by rdan)

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Demographics and real wage growth

When discussing real income growth one of the points often made by conservatives and libertarians is that the average data on real income is irrelevantly because it does not measure the same people over time. There is some validity to this point. For example, an individual captured in the snapshot of income data in 1970 who is only 20 years old will be 55 in a snapshot of income in 2005. Because income tends to increase over time they make the argument that the average income data understates the income gains people actually experience.

The type of data behind this argument is this data on median earnings of full time employees.

(% of median) (%of 15-24)
total 100
15-24 66.0
25-34 99.8 151.2
35-44 115.6 175.2
45-54 121.6 184.3
55-65 112.7 170.8
over 65 84.2 127.5

It shows, for example that a 50 year old’s earnings are 121.6% of the average and/or 184.3% or a 20 year old’s earnings.

Of course if you have a normal pyramid shaped age structure the snapshot of average income in 1970, 1980….2000 will include the same share of 20,30…60 year olds at each time so the argument advanced that the people change is invalid. But over the last 30-40 years the US has experienced a very unusual demographic shift in the labor force because of the baby boomers maturing. As the chart shows the composition of employment has changed drastically.

But the combination of a changing income age structure and income increasing as the labor force
ages generates a significant impact on average wage growth. If you take the income structure shown in the table and apply it to the changing demographic it generates significant results.
In the 1970s because of the baby boomers entering the labor force the age of employees and the real median weekly earnings of the US employees would have actually have fallen some 2%.
From the bottom in 1980 these factors alone should have generated about a five percentage point increase in real medium weekly earnings–from 98 to 103.3 in the chart.

The actual increase in real weekly median earnings from 1980 to 2007 was about eight percentage points — from 98 to 106.2 in the chart.

So when you actually look at the data behind the claim that average real income comparisons over time are invalid you get some very interesting results. It shows that 64% of the actual increase in real income from 1980 to 2007 was due to the maturing of the labor force rather then other general economic factors such as productivity growth. So rather than productivity, etc. generating an eight percentage point real income increase from 1980 to 2007 it was only three percentage points.

Of course this is just the opposite point the conservative and libertarians intent to make, but
why should we try to confuse them with the facts.

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Here are some charts to demonstrate what I was talking about. the recent drop in US bond yields has not been accompanied by a similar drop in European rates.
Consequently the spread between US and foreign bonds has narrowed and it no longer compensates foreigners for the currency risk they take when investing in the US.
The consequences are a weak dollar. Note the opposite happened when Reagan first
created structural deficits and the dollar had to weaken enough to create a large enough
trade deficit to facilitate the capital inflow. At that point we had crowding out but it worked through the dollar to crowd out the manufacturing sector rather then the interest sensitive sectors.

It is also working against the Euro as you see the it strengthen when rates spreads widen.

When the US made itself dependent on foreign capital inflows the world got a lot more complex and it was no longer possible to analysis monetary or fiscal policy as if the US were a closed economy. I worry that we are now starting to see the bear case that I have worried about for years when international capital flows prevent the Fed from easing when domestic considerations call for it. I’m not making a forecast, I’m just laying out factors that make the analysis much more complex and that need to be brought into the analysis.

Maybe it is what we need to revive the manufacturing sector, and will be what drives the economy over the next decade. Save-the-rustbelt would love this. But, it creates inflation and real income complications for the rest of us.

I probably is what will happen since Don Boudreaux at the Cafe Hayek blog just got one of his letters to the FT published where he praised the trade deficit. I just base my analysis on the thesis that he is usually wrong.

I realize these charts are simple and the real world is more complex involving covered interest rate difference, etc, but they are adequate to make the point.

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Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

Just to put things in perspective, the inflation rate was 4.4%, the same as it is right now, when Nixon imposed price controls in 1971.

P.S. He knew the inflation rate was slowing. But he imposed price controls as part of his package to devalue the dollar because he expected the weak dollar to be inflationary.

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Cool it everybody. If you look at the historical data you will see that it is a very normal cyclical development for the participation rate to drop in the early stages of a recession. There is nothing funny oR out of line with the data.


Employment report

The February index of aggregate hours worked was 107.3 as compared to a 4th quarter average of 107.7. That implies that first quarter hours worked are falling at about a 1.5% annual rate. As a first approximation that implies that first quarter real GDP growth will be about the same. Of course this depends on productivity growth. if you assume 1% to 2% productivity growth you are back to around a zero growth rate for real GDP. It looks like a recession, but it could still just be stagnation.

Average weekly earnings rose at a 3.3% annual rate. This implies that real earnings are still falling so there is little hope for a turn around in consumer spending even though February same store sales growth appeared to improve and February auto sales were 15.38 M (SAAR) as compared to 15.33 M in January.

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